By JUSTIN UMALI
MANILA – Human rights organization Defend-Southern Tagalog (Defend-ST) revealed the human rights abuses in the region’s rural communities in a forum held July 20 at the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP).
The organization cited Duterte’s track record on human rights violations in Southern Tagalog. As of December 2018, there have been at least 55 documented cases of illegal arrest, 98 political prisoners with 37 coming from the Southern Tagalog region and 22 arrested under the Duterte administration. At least 350 cases of aerial bombing and strafing operations conducted by the Armed Forces of the Philippines were also documented.
Shirley Songalia, Defend-ST spokesperson, said that the current culture of impunity is tied with the economic interests of the ruling elite.
“The systematic series of human rights violations in Oriental Mindoro, Quezon, and the rest of Southern Tagalog all have the same pattern – they are all caused by development aggression carried out by large companies and backed by the Duterte regime,” Songalia said.
Victims shared their testimonies during the forum.
‘Tinatakot po sila’
Songalia was one of the members of Karapatan-ST’s fact-finding mission that responded to reports of bombing and other abuses allegedly conducted by elements of the Army’s 4th Infantry Brigade in the towns of Victoria and Mansalay, Oriental Mindoro last June.
Songalia said that when they arrived in Calapan, Mindoro, the delegation had to pass through three checkpoints. In each checkpoint, soldiers in full battle gear pointed their rifles at them and interrogated them.
Songalia added that the tires of their vehicle were punctured by spikes on the road. “It seems to us the spikes were placed there deliberately,” she said in Filipino.
The troubles continued upon reaching the towns of Mansalay and Victoria.
“We were harassed continuously, even the families of three farmers allegedly killed in an encounter,” Lavado said. She said the policemen went inside the Church where they were staying and intimidate the pastor who accommodated them.
For one week, the military and the local government had in their custody three bodies of suspected New People’s Army guerrillas. “They refused to surrender the bodies to the families,” Songalia said.
Songalia said that the authorities agreed to have the families claim the bodies on the condition that they would sign an affidavit which states that the person killed was a commander of the NPA. “The families do not know the names in the affidavits,” Songalia said.
The June incident was only one example of many rights violations, Lavado said. According to the group, over 600 indigenous Mangyan have been forced to evacuate from Mansalay and Victoria towns due to military operations.
Songalia said Mangyan people, in particular, are frequent targets of harassment and state violence.
“Mangyan are naturally shy. They don’t like talking to strangers. Because of this, they are often mistaken as NPA and arrested or killed,” Songalia said.
Songalia stressed that this combination of abuses and red-tagging prevents the indigenous Mangyan from integrating into Philippine society.
“They are being threatened and are forced to leave their ancestral land. After this, mining companies and other commercial interests take over their resources,” she said.
One of the largest power companies in Oriental Mondoro is the Santa Clara Power Corporation, which has initiated its geothermal plant in Mount Naujan, Oriental Mindoro.
Another mining company is Intex Mining, operating along the boundaries of Victoria, Oriental Mindoro and Sablayan, Occidental Mindoro. Energy Secretary Alfredo Cusi reportedly has shared in Intex.
Songalia said Mangyan residents living in the said areas are not only threatened by environmental destruction but also by military intervention forcing them to flee their communities.
“Although the current operations in Mindoro are under the scope of Oplan Kapanatagan supposedly to address the communist insurgency, it becomes clear that these operations have economic interests as well,” Songalia said.
Eliceo Batardo, a farmer from Macalelon, Quezon, revealed their current situation and the human rights abuses in the province.
Batardo said elements of Army’s 85th Infantry Battalion came to their community last year. “At first, they were kind, even helping us in our work. Their behavior suddenly changed in March. More soldiers arrived and stayed in the barangay hall, questioning the residents.”
One day, while Batardo and nine other colleagues came home from the town, the soldiers interrogated them. “They asked us who we are, what are we doing, are we NPA, where are we going and so on. We became afraid,” Batardo narrated.
Two of their companions were arrested. “They were asked if they would surrender or would they rather be killed. Who would want to get killed? So they said they would just surrender. They were made to sign a document stating they were NPA; their photos were taken, and then they were freed.”
Batardo said that they tried everything within their means to seek justice but to no avail.
“That’s why we join here so that the others would know about our situation in Quezon,” he said.
Defend-ST is one of the groups spearheading the Daluyong 2019 protest caravan, along with the Southern Tagalog Ouster Movement (STORM DUTERTE) and Bagong Alyansang Makabayan – Southern Tagalog (BAYAN-ST). They will be joining the United People’s SONA on July 22.